Face-to-face meetings with staff appraisers likely but procedures in flux
Updated 10:35am January 17, 2020, to add link to audio file of January 13, 2020, meeting of the TCAD board of directors.
At its January 13, 2020, meeting the Travis Central Appraisal District’s board of directors spent almost 90 minutes discussing how TCAD might accommodate informal protests of property valuations including face-to-face meetings between staff appraisers and property owners or their agents during the 2020 protest season.
Face-to-face meetings for informal value protests were routine through the 2018 season. That’s when a pilot program was launched to allow filing protests through an online portal. Property owners or their agents could still meet face to face with appraisers in 2018. That practice was barred for the 2019 tax protest season. Protests had to e-filed for examination by staff appraisers, who could deliver a settlement offer if warranted by the evidence. But property owners and agents could not see TCAD’s evidence as to how it arrived at its value decision.
As reported December 1, 2019, Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler’s unilateral decision not to allow face-to-face informal meetings in the 2019 protest season resulted in massive problems. The number of formal hearings before the Appraisal Review Board (ARB) jumped from 23,000 in 2018 to 90,000 in 2019. That resulted in increasing the costs of ARB hearings more than six times. The number of complaints more than doubled. The number of lawsuits and requests for arbitration increased dramatically as well.
Chief appraiser’s plan for 2020 protests
Crigler briefed the board by reading from her written recommendations. She estimated informal meetings would be available from April 1, 2020, through May 29, 2020.
Formal Appraisal Review Board hearings would start around June 1, 2020. She foresees problems with the informal process if property owners delay filing their protests until the last day. “This strategy cannot be accommodated by the appraisal district,” she wrote, “everyone cannot be last.”
To deal with that foreseeable problem, she said, “Intensive public outreach will be required to ensure that persons wanting informals come starting April 1 so that days and capacity are not wasted.” Ideally property owners or their agents would file a protest through the online portal so staff appraisers would have their evidence in advance of a face-to-face meeting.
The appraisal district will need to develop an online reservation system for informal meetings, she said. “Wait times may be long depending on the demand for services each day.”
Among the rules contemplated for running the informal process is that settlement offers cannot be made without supporting evidence.
Once TCAD’s supporting evidence packet is created, the appraiser may make a settlement offer up to the amount the evidence suggests with no management approval. Managers would determine approval of any additional reductions in TCAD valuations on a case-by-case basis.
Procedures would be implemented for review and oversight to ensure fair and consistent offers to all property owners.
Crigler said staff would be made available on some Saturdays for informal meetings so that people would not have to miss work to meet with an appraiser.
Board wants to shape informal process
Given the record number of complaints lodged concerning the 2019 protest process, board members understandably are anxious to ensure the pitfalls encountered last year are avoided during this year’s protest season.
Nevertheless, without acknowledging the risk of expressing strong preferences based on an insufficient understanding of how things actually work, each board member sought to advance personal ideas about how to revise procedures. Neither did they seem concerned about micromanaging a complex process that may result in unintended consequences.
This is a top-down management approach that has been heavily criticized in the past. Instead of inviting stakeholders into a process to devise workable procedures advantageous to all parties, Chief Appraiser Crigler suddenly shut off communications with TCAD staff during the 2019 protest season.
Now the board of directors seem intent on—once again—ignoring stakeholders and proceeding with a “we know best” approach. Though well-intentioned they are oblivious to the reality of what experienced property tax attorneys, property tax consultants, and property owners might suggest to achieve a better path forward through collaboration with TCAD staff leadership.
Ultimately the board voted to have the chief appraiser digest their various proposals and come back with recommendations at a special-called meeting set for 11:30am Tuesday January 21, 2020.
Theoretically that’s when the board will make a final decision—micromanaged or not.
Ryan Steglich, one of two members representing Austin ISD on the TCAD board, submitted a recommendation that was much debated—and heavily criticized—at the December 18, 2019, board meeting, at which he was absent.
“My recommendation is for TCAD to create an opportunity for face to face meetings to review information only if appraisers are not able to change appraised values during these face to face meetings.”
Instead, Steglich recommends that a settlement offer in the form of an adjusted property value could only be made only after review and delivered only through TCAD’s online portal.
“Forcing an appraiser to make unilateral valuation changes while in a potentially adversarial face-to-face meeting creates a system ripe for abuses. Let’s have a system that is consistent, transparent and fair to all taxpayers.”
Steglich proposal criticisms
At that December 18 meeting attorney Lori Michel of Michel Gray & Rogers called Steglich’s proposal “a terrible idea. I would strongly encourage you to reject the promotion of his proposal that doesn’t allow an appraiser to reach a value. That’s how it’s done across the state.”
Debra Bawcom, CEO of Texas Protax, told the board, “You need to seriously consider the inefficiency of a system of having a taxpayer come in and have a discussion and not get a decision…I think it will get a lot of pushback.”
David Bawcom of Protax also criticized the proposal. He told the board, “I was shocked” to hear it, he said. “The idea of having informals without a settlement? Why have informals?”
But Steglich was not at that meeting to hear those criticisms and proceeded to advocate for his ideas.
Nor, apparently, did he read, or chose to ignore, The Austin Bulldog’s report on that meeting, in which John Paul “JP” Krueger, CEO of Five Stone Tax Advisers, also said, “Is this appraisal district trying to tell all other appraisal districts they are doing it wrong, that only TCAD has it right?”
Monday’s board discussion
At the January 13 board meeting, Board Member Blanca Zamora-Garcia pushed back against Steglich’s proposal. She said, “Folks will feel better if they get a decision at their informal meeting.”
Steglich responded to say owners would get a settlement offer within five days of the meetings. He wants to separate the information gathering, to include evidence obtained through the online portal and face-to-face meetings, from the value decision.
Zamora-Garcia asked Steglich, “Have you been to an informal protest meeting” (with a staff appraiser)?
To which he replied, “No, but I’ve heard stories.”
Board Member Anthony Nguyen pointed out that Appraisal Review Board panelists make decisions as to protested value while the property owner or agent is present. “They do that all the time,” he said.
At one point in the discussion the board asked Taxpayer Liaison Martin Wilbanks to comment.
“Whatever decision you come to, you have to inform the general public, you have to do an outstanding job of communicating,” he said. “It’s most important for the taxpayer to understand the process.”
Later he told The Austin Bulldog, “Whatever process we come up with, the property owner has to feel like the market value is fair. The process is supposed to generate a fair market value.”
A lawyer’s advice
Attorney Karen Evertson, whose firm Evertson & Sanchez represents TCAD in virtually all property owner lawsuits challenging valuations, said her focus is on helping to avoid lawsuits. “You have to make rules and stick to them,” she said.
She viewed the face-to-face meetings as valuable even if no immediate decision is made as to the valuation, because the staff appraiser can answer questions for people who don’t understand the process.
“My preference is everyone goes through the same process,” Evertson said. The appraiser could say, “We will be back in touch after we study this, then make an educated analysis based on the facts, then render the opinion of the agency.
“If done completely and consistently, she said, it will reduce the number of lawsuits based on being treated differently from someone else.”
What’s odd about Evertson’s statement is that lawsuits are not triggered by what happens at informal meetings with staff appraisers. Lawsuits are filed when property owners disagree with valuations assigned as a result of a formal ARB hearing.
Evertson was unable to promptly respond to a follow-up question posed via email this afternoon about this anomaly.
Attorney Lorri Michel of Michel Gray & Rogers was not at the January 13 board meeting. But she has deep experience in representing property owners in lawsuits against TCAD and winning judgments or settlements involving upwards of a million dollars. So The Austin Bulldog requested her comments about how TCAD could avoid lawsuits.
“I think the way to reduce lawsuits is to give both sides the ability to meet and resolve disputes informally,” Michel said. “But even more, so much of what has driven the increase in lawsuits is not only TCAD’s refusal (in 2019) to informally meet, but also their attitude that we are right and you are wrong—rather than having an attitude of let’s get to the right value. If TCAD adopts an attitude of our goal is to get to the right value rather than to win that will go a long way in reducing lawsuits.
“I don’t know how this appraisal district got so far off the rails but they can correct it. As easily as they got off the rails with executive management decisions that were made, they can get back on a path to reasonableness,” she said.
Settlement offers to be put into TCAD records?
Chief Appraiser Crigler said that whatever value changes are made through settlement offers through the informal process can be inserted into TCAD’s records as an updated property value.
Attorney Evertson said that would mean if the property owner or owner’s agent files a formal protest to be heard before the Appraisal Review Board, the disputed value would be the same as the figure in the settlement offer.
Rine Kaatz is an appeals manager and senior property tax consultant for Texas Protax. He was at the TCAD board meeting. While the board was in a closed-door executive session, he told The Austin Bulldog that the upside of inserting the settlement offer valuation into TCAD’s records—even if the settlement was not accepted by the property owner—means that the owners who miss their formal ARB hearings would still get the value reduction.
“That’s not done anywhere else,” Kaatz said.
One negative that could result from this procedure is that the property owner and neighbors would want to know why the value was reduced. That information is not usually conveyed in settlement offers.
Appraisal Review Board chair
William “Bill” Fields has been appointed to chair the Appraisal Review Board for 2020. This will be his sixth year on the ARB and his first year to lead the organization. The ARB is separate from the appraisal district, although the district provides administrative support for ARB operations.
Fields told The Austin Bulldog that resuming the face-to-face informal protest hearings, which were not allowed in 2019, “may reduce the number of ARB hearings we have.”
That seems a safe bet.
The total number of value protests filed in 2018, when face-to-face informal meetings were allowed, and 2019, when they were halted, are nearly identical. But in 2018 there were 23,000 formal hearings and in 2019 there were 90,000. Vastly more property owners in 2019 did not accept settlement offers that TCAD may have made, and opted to go to ARB’s formal hearing process.
Fields said that the ARB will plan to have formal hearings on “at least three Saturdays in June and three Saturdays in July.” Saturday ARB hearings might be cancelled, however, if no one is coming in. Cancelling Saturday hearings would save the expense of paying ARB members, TCAD support staff, and security guards for these proceedings.
Regarding the 2020 ARB hearings, Chief Appraiser Crigler told the board that the building being renovated at 850 E. Anderson Lane will be ready for the ARB hearings to commence by June 1.
New TCAD board officers installed
As it does in the January meeting each year, the board considered changing its leadership. At the January 13 meeting, board members nominated and voted to appoint the board chair, vice chair, and secretary-treasurer. The total membership and composition of the board remained otherwise unchanged.
James Valadez, who was appointed to the board by Travis County in 2016, was named chair, succeeding Tom Buckle, who has represented West Travis County since 2010.
Valadez was one of five people who tried unsuccessfully to unseat District 3 Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria in the November 6, 2018, City Council election.
Bruce Grube, appointed to the board by Travis County in 2012, will remain vice chair for another term.
Theresa Bastian, appointed to the board in 2018 by Austin ISD, was named secretary-treasurer, succeeding Valadez.
TCAD board meetings now recorded
At the December 18, 2019, meeting, attorney Bill Aleshire told the board that their meetings should be recorded, given that a sound system had been installed.
The January 13 board meeting was the first to be recorded and the audio file will be posted to the TCAD website for public access. That file has not yet been posted.
TCAD Communications Officer Cynthia Martinez told The Austin Bulldog the agency’s goal is to have the recordings posted within 72 hours of the board meetings. Given that the board meeting adjourned at 2:29pm Monday, it should be available on the TCAD site by Thursday afternoon.
Delay in posting the audio file, Martinez said, occurs because “the file has to be converted and compressed to make it easy for people to download.”
Links to related documents:
Related Bulldog coverage:
Appraisal review board and appraisal district sued, January 6, 2020
TCAD board rewards chief appraiser, December 19, 2019
TCAD 2020 to resume face-to-face informal protests, December 11, 2019
By every measure TCAD is having a bad year, December 1, 2019
TCAD board gets earful about impact of barring face-to-face appeals, November 18, 2019
TCAD alone in barring face-to-face informal protests, November 12, 2019
TCAD board member had dual homestead tax exemptions, October 20, 2019
Property value protest hearings harshly criticized, August 29, 2019
TCAD flubs public notice for hearing on Proposed 2020 Budget, August 9, 2019
TCAD loses landfill lawsuit at cost of nearly $1 million, July 16, 2019
New offices for Travis Central Appraisal District, July 15, 2019
Deputy chief appraiser abruptly resigns, July 10, 2019
Appraisal Review Board heads off lawsuit, June 12, 2019
New procedures undermine appraisal process, June 6, 2019
Lawsuit Seeks Property Tax Hearings, December 17, 2018
Homestead Exemptions a Tax Loophole,” February 26, 2014
Homestead Exemptions Rife With Abuse, December 20, 2013
Chris Riley Nailed for Back Taxes, August 20, 2014
Appraisal District to End Records Suppression, November 22, 2011
Appraisal Records Hidden from Public View, November 18, 2011
Are Austin’s Property Taxes Fair and Equitable? July 30, 2010
KEN PIX: Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981 and investigating and reporting on Travis Central Appraisal District since 2011. See more on Ken on the About page.
Email [email protected].
Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981 and investigating and reporting on Travis Central Appraisal District since 2011. See more on Ken on the About page.
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